Central and Eastern Europe

On magnets or underground: how does the Russian anonymous marketplace work?

Convenience, anonymity and relative security are what drug users and dealers love the darknet for.

We are republishing Mikhail Shubin’s article from the second issue of Moloko Plus about the Russian Anonymous MarketPlace (RAMP) – the main site for selling drugs in Russia. 

At the time of printing the original article, RAMP had been subjected to DDoS (Denial-of-service-attacks i.e. a form a cyber attack) attacks for more than a month and was unavailable. Now, a year later, RAMP has still not come back to life. It is not clear what happened to the site and its creators and whether it will resume its functions. This text is kind of an epitaph to what was once the largest drug selling site in the Russian language segment of the darknet.

10 am. Kira has not slept for the last three days. She has been writing her PhD. It will take a few more days of work, if she doesn’t get distracted by sleep. To do this she has to take a trip to get amphetamine, hidden in one of Yekaterinburg’s parks.

She laces up her boots. She grabs a 5 litre bottle of water and several plastic cups. She puts sandwiches and a shoehorn into her rucksack. Kira checks how much charge her phone has. The dog is begging for food. It’s irritating her. Trying not to lose her temper with the animal, Kira puts some food in his bowl and pours him some water. Before leaving she places a drop of speed dissolved in water in each nostril, just to take the edge off the withdrawal.

The journey to the park takes 40 minutes. Kira has specifically chosen a dead drop* that is far from her home so she can take a stroll to relax. She gets off the tram with all the dog walkers. Bored policemen are milling around by the bus stop.

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Kira has the coordinates of the dead drop and photos of the location where the speed is hidden on her phone. The shop sent her this data after she paid. The dead drop is not far from an avenue where skiers race through. Kira makes her way through the snow drifts. Five minutes later she’s in the forest. She sits on the nearest fallen tree and takes out her phone to make sure she’s on the right track.

Several people’s shows flicker somewhere behind the trees. One of them is looking at something in his hand, the other is squatting and poking around in the snow. Kira smiles. Seeing a man approaching with a dog, the graduate student grabs the sandwiches from her bag and pours some water from the bottle into a cup. Even though she does not want to eat at all.

The man and his dog pass, the men she saw behind the trees disappear. Kira throws the sandwiches away and pours the water from the cup onto the ground.

The melted snow reveals nothing.

She scrapes the ground with the shoehorn, badly scratched from stones and smeared with mud from past jaunts. Finding nothing, she methodically pours water on the snow around her. Nothing.

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Desperate, Kira leaves. She curses the ‘treasure man’** who believed he could bury a transparent bag of white speed under the snow under her breath. On the way back to the station she opens Tor and logs into RAMP. She should have enough bitcoins for three grams of speed and a gram of hashish, which will help her to fall asleep sometime.

A brief history of RAMP

The website RAMP (Russian Anonymous MarketPlace) which Kira uses is the largest platform for buying drugs on the Russian language darkweb. You can connect to it using a special anonymous browser, known as Tor. Tor was developed by US military scientists in the mid-90s to protect civil servants on the Internet. When transferring information, Tor encrypts the data and changes the user’s IP address. Anonymity is achieved thanks to through several layers of encryption. Now that Tor has been declassified, the program’s original code is available publically. Tor enthusiasts carried out further development of the browser. The browser allows access to blocked resources and gives access to the intranet domain .onion.network.

Criminals only started to pay attention to Tor after the use of Bitcoins – a cryptocurrency that allows people to anonymously conduct online transactions for any amount of money – became more widespread. Trading platforms for selling drugs, weapons, forged documents and credit cards began to appear online. Human trafficking, contract killing services, snuff movies and child porn have become an integral part of the Darknet.

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With the advent of stable versions of Tor, a Russian-language space began to develop within the network. The first porn forums, drug dealing site and stores selling weapons and spy gadgets opened.

RAMP appeared on the Russian language Darknet in 2012. There are several similar projects including HYDRA and Russian Silkroad (now a part of HYDRA) RuTor, WayAway, Bazaar, Anthill, as well as several other smaller sites.

At the time of writing this article, dozens, possibly even hundreds of thousands of people have visited these sites. But the largest and most popular is RAMP: it has more than 270 thousand accounts and 1.3 million messages have been exchanged on it. The other sites aren’t as popular due to the lack of support from admins in resolving transaction disputes as well as unreliable dealers.

RAMP was started by someone known as ‘Darkside’. He created the rules of the forum and the online stores. Darkside has only being in contact with the press once: in 2014, he revealed to Wired that he earns $ 250,000 a year from RAMP.

Darkside did not write a single post in 2017. A year earlier, messages from the administrators had were being sent from someone known as ‘Orange’. He had also edited old posts by RAMP’s founding father. In October 2016, Orange announced that he was leaving to live ‘the white life’  i.e. he was leaving the drug business. Who took over this vacant spot, or even if it has been filled, is unknown. The number of people who hide behind each forum administrator’s nickname is also unclear.

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Kira found out about RAMP in 2016. By registering, she agreed to the rules of the forum. “Any commercial proposals that do not relate directly or indirectly to the resource’s subject matter are prohibited,” one of the site’s rules warned her. In other words, you can only sell drugs. The only substances that are prohibited as synthetic cannabinoids, a rule which is stated during registration.

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RAMP’s homepage seemed to Kira to be reminiscent of something straight out of the mid-2000s. Instead of seeing the usual banners advertising irons and cars for sale, her eyes were hit with bright pictures and text: cocaine, ecstasy pills, weed, hashish, LSD, AMF.

To open a store, the dealer pays RAMP’s administration. One of the conditions for selling a product is disclosing the exact formula of the substance that is up for sale. The higher up the page the dealer’s listing is, the more he pays to the administration. Adverts also cost dealers an extra thousand dollars a month. There is practically no free advertising space.

Often transactions are completed in so-called ‘instant stores,’  leaving the forum as merely a platform for discussing various issues and for drug users to communicate: from reports of drug trips, to FAQs on security and protection against criminal prosecution, to advice on how to prepare veins and administer first aid.

More than 100 large ‘stores’ are operating on RAMP and the amount of transactions that each of these process ranges from 5000 to 10 000, sometimes more (the period of time when these transactions were carried out was not indicated-editor’s note.) Additionally, there are about 500 small dealers. The nameless stores are cheaper and those with well-known brands are more expensive. The larger stores offer discounts for regulars and work hard to keep a good reputation. They make high quality dead drops and have a strong customer focus and aim to solve customer problems quickly.

“Prices are now several times more expensive for new customers (known as Novoregovs). Manage your accounts and be honest customers,” reads the tagline for one of the major stores.

RAMP’s instant stores are no different from regular online stores. Drugs are sorted by category and by region and there is a list of the best stores. Substances are available practically throughout the whole Russian Federation as well as throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

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To buy speed Kira first transferred money to the site’s account. Depending on which payment method the store accepts, customers pay into either a QIWI or bitcoin account. The administration have written detailed instructions on how to do this.

After Kira has chosen a dealer and indicated her location she will be offered two options to get the drugs.

The stores leave ‘ready made treasures,’ which are laid out in advance in the city. People pass by these readily available stashes every day without noticing them. Electrical transformers, garages, window sills, cemeteries, parks, trees, basements, public toilets. The drugs are hidden under slabs, attached to magnets, buried in the ground, covered with leaves or with stones. When you make a purchase you can usually chose the place to receive your goods.

Once the payment has been processed, the buyer receives a description of the ‘treasure’s’ location as well as GPS coordinates and photos.  The ‘ready made treasure’ option allows you to receive an order as quickly as possible – sometimes it can take less than an hour between payment and receiving the ‘treasure’. Only small amounts are sold this way – no more than a few grams, depending on the substance.

Another option is to have the order delivered via a dead drop. This is used for large volumes of drugs and wholesales. Within 48 hours after the transaction has been accepted, the dead drop is made for the buyer. Most often, these take place far away from residential areas. Encrypted messages are used in communications between the dealer and buyer.

Guarantor and care

For the customer’s insurance, the administration has developed a system of guarantors. For 5% of the transaction amount that the buyer pays using RAMP,  the administration will participate in any arguments with the drug dealers. For example, if the ‘treasure’ isn’t found, the buyer files a dispute, both sides of the story (the buyer’s and the dealer’s) are heard, with the guarantor acting as a mediator. Regardless of the outcome, the guarantors receive their 5%.

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A dealer cannot refuse to sell to a client who wants to use a guarantor. If they do, the rules state that, “the dealer may be deprived of their status as a dealer and lose their opportunity to provide services on the site.”

Nobody forces buyers to use guarantors, but the administration recommends them. If a transaction is made without an intermediary, buyers deal with dealers one-on-one.

Kira bought the speed without a guarantor and has not filed a dispute. She had hoped to find the dead drop in the spring, once the snow had melted. But there was no sign of it in the spring. Kira doesn’t know whether the dealer had scammed her, or if whether it had been taken by another user whose ‘treasure’ was placed nearby, but she does know that she will not be buying anything from this dealer again.

The main guarantor in large transactions is the administrator known as Orbit. He serves as an intermediary for wholesale purchases, some of which may exceed one million rubles.

The stores actively welcome the use of guarantors, but many promise their regular customers that they will resolve disputes in their favour, even without the involvement of a third party.

Dealers pay deposits that can amount to several million rubles. A deposit is needed in case the dealer defrauds a large number of buyers. If the dealer swindles their customers, the money from the deposit will be divided between the victims.

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Feedback from other customers is important. Before buying, you can read about the quality of the drug, reviews of the dealer and the accuracy of the dead drop. Some shops ask buyers not to leave negative reviews in cases concerning torn bags or bags containing a smaller amount of drugs than ordered and instead first try to solve disputes amicably.

From treasure man to admin

Patrik is the owner of one of RAMP’s largest stores. His deposit is worth several million rubles. In his ‘store’ the number of completed transactions exceeds 10 thousand ( numbers higher than this aren’t displayed -author’s note). His rating is as close to 5 stars as is possible. Most members of his team live abroad.

Patrik is not his real name. He asked Moloko Plus not to specify his store’s name nor his company’s nickname. He agreed in advance that he would not reveal details about himself.

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He agreed to communicate by using a one-time message service –  you can only read his answers to questions using a special link and only once. The message is destroyed when you reopen it.

“I am the same as the majority of people around me, nobody knows what i do… that’s the drawback – not telling anyone what you are doing. My personal life is no different from that of an average office worker. Home, work, society… I strive for life, emotions, communication, knowledge, new things. However, I understand that I put my life in danger and if I could have everything that I have without doing this, it would be paradise. How long can I do this for? I don’t know, I ask myself this question,” says Patrik.

He refused to answer questions about the financial aspects of the store, how he protects it from law enforcement agencies and from contact with them as well as about cyber defense mechanisms.

“There can be a lot of variations [of store structures]. From stores, to which state they are in – one person could be doing all the work from dead drops, being the operator, the moderator, etc. to a complex structure with a large number of staff,” explains Patrik.

Going by what is written on RAMP, it is possible to describe the approximate structure of the drug stores. A large store comprises of dozens of people. The lion’s share of staff are brokers or ‘treasure men’ who are recruited to work for the shop straight from the forums. This is followed by wholesale couriers who search for smaller stores. Wholesale couriers work with large quantities or dead drop large quantities of drugs for retail stores.

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Operators take orders, pass the goods on to the ‘treasure men’ and solve problems that are raised by customers. Some dealers have regular chemists who make drugs in their own laboratories, as well as growers who grow marijuana in garages or rented rooms. Posts seeking to hire chemists and growers occasionally appear on RAMP. These are all supervised by the store administrator.

The top echelon is likely to be in contact with the drug manufacturers or larger suppliers. The structure is similar to that of a classic drug cartel with the difference being that there are no armed struggles over the distribution of territory on RAMP.

“There isn’t an abundance of weapons [yet], and the benefit here is that it is becoming more and more civilized than [Latin American] groups… There are more honest relationships and people offering assistance, within reason… Dealers communicate amongst themselves, warn each other, share news and other things. There is more comradery. This applies to old-timers, they aren’t particularly fond of newcomers here, for obvious reasons,” says Patrik.

Patrik refused to name his subordinates and their functions. When asked how many drugs passed through his store and what the cumulative revenue his ‘enterprise’ has, the dealer answered evasively, only saying that drug trafficking in Russia from the darknet ranges from 0.5 to 1 ton of drugs per month, not including ‘designer drugs’. According to Patrik, who draws on his personal experiences, the turnover of funds on the market ranges from 300 to 500 million rubles a month.

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“Before the internet era, people got substances from elsewhere. Now it has become more convenient. The customer has a big advantage: say the dealer compromised on the quality, provided them with less than they paid for etc. – all this can be fed back into the community and the administration. Therefore self-regulation occurs… Many times more people die from alcohol, and have you taken into account the statistics about cigarettes? A person has a head on his shoulders, if he does not know how to use it, then this is, excuse me for saying so, natural selection. It’s important to note – no one will willingly sell poison [speaking on behalf of the administration],” Patrik writes in response when questioned if he feels guilty and responsible for selling drugs to people.

Training for employment

“Start working with confidence for tomorrow,” reads one of the many posts searching for staff for the drug stores. RAMP is always in need of drug dealers in one region or another of Russia. A bit less often, dealers are searching for warehouse managers, wholesalers, chemists and growers on the forum. Larger dealers only recruit people for low-level positions, and it is unclear whether it is possible for them to progress and to become operators or wholesale suppliers, for example.

“There are very intelligent people everywhere. Someone starts as a ‘treasure man’ and then he gets the idea to and then opens his own store,” writes Patrik.

Another large store has posted about career opportunities. A broker can be promoted to a packer, a wholesale courier can become the operation. Job seekers are promised good money and dangerous, but not hard work.

The adverts often feature questions asking whether the applicant has relevant job experience in the drugs sphere and a criminal record. A private car, the ability to use GPS to indicate coordinates are desirable, but what is most important is not have a drug addiction. Another condition to being employed as a  ‘treasure man’  is to pay a  deposit, which varies from 10 to 100 rubles. The sum of the deposit for wholesale  ‘treasure men’ can amount to several thousand rubles – insurance in case the  ‘treasure man’ decides to cheat the dealer.

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The number of operators, chemists and growers is unknown. According to interviews, salaries vary.

One can estimate a broker’s salary, more of less reliably. Some stores promise between 450 to 2000 rubles for one dead drop. In a large store, which is apparently involved with the wholesale of drugs, it is believed that  ‘treasure men’  can earn from 50 to 150 thousand rubles a week, for depositing between 25 and 50 grams of drugs at a time – which is quite a lot. For the same period, a wholesale  ‘treasure man’ can receive upwards of 150 thousand rubles. They can make deposits over 50 grams.

Before being employed as a  ‘treasure man’  one must first disclose their marital status, who they live with and, in large cities, indicate the area they live in. It is assumed that this information will stay confidential with the administration.

Patrik refuses to answer how they vet new people. Store employees “need a head on their shoulders and everything they need to know about a person becomes obvious, usually after the first correspondence,” says the dealer.

“This isn’t normal work, it’s not a normal salary…It’s rare for someone to make this choice because they are someone who has an extraordinary outlook on life, more often they are someone who likes excitement or someone who is against the system etc.,” writes Patrik, when asked about what motivates people to try out the drug business.

There are so many people who are willing to become ‘treasure man’  that they opened a sort of training centre on RAMP. The course is designed to take 10-14 days, during which the beginner learns how to safely and competently make dead drops in appropriate places. The training is free, but participants must pay a deposit of 15 thousand rubles. Graduates are promised employment.

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A wooded park in the east of Moscow. A man in a yellow jacket with a receding hairline and a 5 o’clock shadow hesitates near the white Renault. The words “Test drive” are written on the rear window. The man’s hand is handcuffed to a policeman.

-What is your purpose in the city of Moscow? – asks his stern voice.

-Well…umm… –  the detainee hesitates.

-Why did you come here? For work or to see relatives? – prompts a female voice.

-For drugs – the detainee breathes.

-And did you have a lot to pick up? – inquires the stern voice.

-A kilogram…

The hero of the police operation is filming, “We caught the amphetamine distributor in the east of Moscow. He left his normal job in Bryansk and decided to try his luck in the drug business. The task was simple: go to Moscow, make a dead drop and return to his hometown. For a day or two’s work he was promised 50 thousand rubles. The first trip passed without incident. Depositing a kilo of amphetamine, he received his promised money.

A few weeks later, renting a Renault, the courier once again went to the forested park in the east of Moscow. The car was stopped by operatives. They pulled out a big black bag of amphetamine from under the glove compartment.

The man shifts from foot to foot as he shows the location of the first dead drop – in the forest under rotten tree roots, covered with green moss and sprinkled with withered leaves.  The courier doesn’t know anything about the dealer. He was given instructions by an anonymous messenger.

The courier has the coordinates of the dead drop, photos of the location and correspondence with an unknown guide who had recruited him via spam SMS messages offering easy money. When asked if he knew the people he spoke with, the detainee replied: “Of course not, nobody knows them.”

It is taboo to discuss personal details of store employees on the darknet, therefore the search for workers via RAMP goes well with the site’s concept of complete anonymity. In theory, no one can identify anyone else. When  ‘treasure man’  get arrested, they can only name for the store the work for.

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Patrik does not say if any of his store’s employees are in prison. He admits that any arrested or imprisoned team members could cause damage to the business: “As elsewhere, if one drowns, he pulls the rest in with him.” Stores sometimes assist their captive employees.

“It all depends on the people. If the boss has a heart and is sympathetic, then i am sure it helps,” writes Patrik.

When asked if a store employee can return to work for the same dealer after serving time, Patrik writes, “Anything can happen.”

For the whole time RAMP has been active, Russian security agencies have not reported capturing any of the heads of the online drug store. In 2014, the Interior Ministry tried to de-anonymize Tor users, which would have put the darknet’s drug business in jeopardy. A contract to do so, for almost 4 million rubles, was awarded to the Central Research Institute for Economics, Informatics and Control Systems. A year later, the institute refused the contract, for unknown reasons.

In the summer of 2016, the head of the FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, became preoccupied with the network’s anonymity. In his opinion, the services providing anonymous communication within the network could be used by terrorists. It is unknown what steps the FSB are taking to combat this, other than making high-profile statements about the dangers of Tor.

When asked what would happen if RAMP suddenly gets closed, as was the case with Silk Road – the largest English speaking service on the darknet selling prohibited goods which was shut down by the FBI, Patrik says, “no one will that easily want to say goodbye to their brainchild.”

“This is someone’s life’s work, which has already helped them earn enough to last for a lifetime… Therefore I think that RAMP will be around for a very long time. But dealers must consider all the risks…[the drug market on the darknet] will expand, but I can’t comment on the rate of growth. At the moment, it seems to me, that only a small amount of Internet users in the Russian Federation know about Tor. Not even all of those who have heard about it, have used it. I think this question is just a matter of time. I think that the more bans that are introduced by the government (in particular by blocking sites), the faster people will learn about Tor and its resources, which will boost the amount of Tor users in Russia,” writes Patrik.

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Patrik criticizes the security force’s tactics of forcing people to participate in bogus drug purchases. It works like this: they put pressure on a person until he asks one of his acquaintances (who becomes the target) to buy drugs for him. The buyer is caught, they arrest him. Law enforcement agencies receive a “tick” in their reports and the hapless detainee gets a prison sentence. When reasoning about the use of such methods, the dealer asks a rhetorical question: “Where is our country and ones like it going?”
He believes that the decriminalization of drugs is “a matter of time, albeit a long one for our country.”

Translators notes:
* Dead drops are used for the illicit distribution of drugs. A dead drop is a method used to pass items or information between two individuals using a secret location, therefore not requiring them to meet directly.
** ‘Treasure man’- someone who carries out the dead drops; a broker. Literal translation from the Russian